I would like to offer another perspective on the psychiatrist whom Augusten Burroughs named "Dr. Finch" in his book Running With Scissors. In my opinion, that character in no way resembles Dr. Rodolph H. Turcotte, whom I knew for 25 years.
Editor's Note: In this column, Ms. Smith writes about how she was helped by Rodolph H. Turcotte, a psychiatrist who came to be censured by the profession. In publishing this account our goal is to provide readers with an interesting story about a therapeutic alliance that changed the course of an individual's life. Publication does not mean that the journal or the editor endorses the clinical approaches described here.—Jeffrey L. Geller, M.D., M.P.H.
In 1974 I was experiencing depression as a result of issues in my marriage, and I was looking for help. A friend was seeing Dr. Turcotte of Northampton, Massachusetts, a family therapist, and highly recommended him. I was hesitant because I did not think I needed a psychiatrist, especially one who was a Catholic and who might have views shaped by Catholic doctrines. However, my friend gave me Dr. Turcotte's book The Kingdom of Heaven, which was his interpretation of the parables of Jesus. After reading it, I felt that this man was a person I could trust—a free-thinking liberal. I made an appointment to see him.
My husband and I met with Dr. Turcotte and began a great learning experience. Married for six years, with two little boys, we both had repressed feelings that we had never been able to express. My father was a talented artist, but he had been an abusive alcoholic during my childhood. Steve's dad had died when he was only 16. Our families were supportive in some ways, but they were not accepting of confrontation and free expression. With Dr. Turcotte as our mentor, we learned healthy techniques for "growing up"—getting beyond our childhood baggage, developing strong and healthy relationships with other people, and strengthening our spiritual lives.
Visits to Dr. Turcotte's office were unlike anything I had heard about in my psychology courses at the University of Vermont or from other people in therapy. There was no stark waiting room where patients sat hiding behind magazines, with a reticent secretary keeping her distance. Often I would find other families laughing and talking in the waiting room while their children played. The secretary, who was frequently a member of the Turcotte family, engaged in lively conversation while a radio played in the corner. Dr. Turcotte sometimes allowed people in therapy to stay well beyond the allotted 45 minutes, and appointment times were thus not always as scheduled. Most patients understood that any of us might need more latitude in a crisis. Dr. Turcotte believed that the key to emotional health is self-expression within a relationship, which helps a person unload the backlog of anger and relieve anxiety, leading to the love flow (positive emotion). I experienced and witnessed this process many times. "When in doubt, get it out," he would say. If necessary, he would prescribe medications, but he advocated that learning to manage emotions would usually eliminate the need for medications.
Once inside the inner office, a patient's time was sacred. Dr. Turcotte would greet you with a handshake, and in his low soothing voice say "What can I do for you?" He had studied with Elvin Semrad, known by some as "the therapist's therapist," and he was very empathic. One had a feeling of total acceptance. I could pour out the contents of my soul without the slightest fear of judgment or stigma. A patient was never seen as a "disease," and if Dr. Turcotte had to give you a label for insurance purposes, it would be the least innocuous designation possible.
When clients emerged from Dr. Turcotte's office, they might encounter familiar faces and might sit and share experiences with individuals who were waiting or with members of the doctor's family who would pop in. We candidly discussed the latest political issues, the tussle between the Red Sox and the Yankees, and Dr. Turcotte's theories. If someone declined to join in, his or her sensitivities were respected.
Dr. Turcotte espoused "personalism," the philosophy that people are more valuable than organizations. He felt that strong personal relationships were critical to emotional health. He never advocated that people sever ties with their families of origin but sought to help heal those relationships as well as to provide some healthy family relationships for those who had none. He related personally to his patients and invited some of them—those whom he judged to be "safe" to relate personally to his family—to potluck suppers at his home, "fathers' breakfasts" at local restaurants, and meetings on topics related to families and community. Sometimes a patient who needed a place to stay for a while could use a bedroom at the Turcotte home. Dr. Turcotte offered people his love and trust. He knew the risk involved—an angry person with mental illness might target his anger at him. Even when he was hurt by people, Dr. Turcotte never changed his tactics, because he believed that only by offering total acceptance could people begin to heal. He felt that the standard psychiatrist-patient interaction was a pseudo-relationship. It was like paying someone to be your friend—someone who would ultimately terminate the friendship. To me he was a father figure, a mentor, and a friend.
My husband and I occasionally attended suppers at the Turcotte home and joined some of Dr. Turcotte's groups, such as the William and Mary Club, where married couples shared their struggles and suggestions. In the late 1970s we began helping Dr. Turcotte present the marriage course at the Newman Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMASS) with his long-time spiritual brother, Father J. Joseph Quigley. We got to know Father Joe very well and learned about the many projects of this "doctor-clergy team," including their therapeutic work with students and faculty. Dr. Turcotte had developed an approach 20 years earlier that involved the patient's spiritual mentor in the therapeutic process. Father Quigley wrote in his memoir about their success with more than 500 people in a 30-year period.
A popular priest in Amherst-Northampton area in the Pioneer Valley, Father Quigley was Dr. Turcotte's staunchest supporter. He participated in Dr. Turcotte's peace activism and traveled with him around the country, both vacationing and promoting their World Fathers' Association, an organization founded in 1971 to "promote heads of families, male and female." Together, they developed the personalistic idea of "tithing to a person"—that is, putting money into the hands of God by giving it to persons who would use the money in accordance with divine guidance. Sometimes this money helped support their work with students, many of whom became their spiritually adopted sons and daughters.
I found that my spiritual life was greatly enhanced by the mentorship of Dr. Turcotte. During his life he developed a partnership with God, influenced profoundly by a religious experience he had when he was a resident at Boston University Medical School. Dr. Turcotte encouraged people to formulate their own beliefs. If asked his opinion he would say, "This is what I believe" but never "This is how it is." He taught people to develop awareness by noticing what was going on in the world around them. A great admirer of Jung, he encouraged people to observe synchronicity and recognize the divine pattern in their lives.
Dr. Turcotte was an outspoken activist, writing letters to the editor and distributing his own newsletters. Predictably, his methods and his spiritual and political practices invited criticism. His disagreements with administrators resulted in his forced resignation from one hospital, and another hospital did not renew his contract. State hospital superintendents at that time could dismiss a psychiatrist without a hearing, even against the recommendation of the board of directors.
When people learned about Dr. Turcotte's difficulties with the system, some stopped therapy with him. However, I noticed that this was rare, and most who got to know him found him highly enlightened and remarkably healing. Eager to grow in awareness, I continued meeting with Dr. Turcotte even though I no longer felt depressed.
In 1984 Dr. Turcotte was subjected to a doctor's worst nightmare—investigation by the Board of Registration in Medicine. Earlier allegations of improper billing resulted in his paying a fine of $2,500 to Blue Shield and led to public scrutiny. Later, an indecent relationship between a former patient and one of Dr. Turcotte's daughters, along with complaints from recipients of his "Peace Bills"—one U.S. senator and one UMASS professor—led to charges of misconduct.
The hearings lasted for more than two years, a trying time for Dr. Turcotte and for those who cared about and relied on him. To hear horrific accusations against a person I knew to be sincere and worthy was difficult. I may have been the only one of his patients who testified in his behalf, which was not easy. But because I had some pertinent information to share, I felt good to help in some way.
Ultimately, the board revoked his license. The board had found that the accusations regarding the Peace Bills were frivolous—they were simply Dr. Turcotte's method of educating the public about the cost of war. However, the board functioned as his prosecutor and not as an impartial investigative party, with the hearing officer, Ralph Deterling, as sole decision maker. Dr. Deterling—a surgeon not a psychiatrist—believed the testimony of the board's two primary witnesses, a child molester and his psychiatrist (who was later convicted of child molesting). He discounted the testimony of Father Quigley and numerous other witnesses for Dr. Turcotte, including former New York Times executive Amory Bradford (who became a practitioner of Gestalt psychology after Dr. Turcotte cured his father), and Dr. Carl Whitaker, a world-renowned family therapist.
Within months Dr. Turcotte suffered a second heart attack, but he recovered and continued to see people without prescribing medications. He traveled all over New England and Quebec, educating people about emotional and spiritual growth, often wearing a Santa Claus hat as a symbol of divine providence. In 1992 I was privileged to be asked to work as his assistant—listening to people who were distressed, taking dictation as he wrote his later manuscripts, and helping to produce community television shows that aired until a month before he died in May 2000 at the age of 80.
Because of Dr. Turcotte, my husband and I, both educators, have raised three children to healthy adulthood, have taken several troubled teenagers and an uncle with disabilities into our home, and have been a source of strength to others.